February 7, 2011

Snow Buries Cemeteries

Back-to-back-to-back snowstorms have forced Derry’s Public Works Department to declare a moratorium on burials at Forest Hills Cemetery for at least the next four weeks. 
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Derry Public Works Director Mike Fowler is stuck between a headstone and a hard place. For now, the best solution to all this snow is closing Forest Hills Cemetery until further notice.
“It’s been difficult to stay ahead of the snow while supporting the needs of funeral homes,” said Fowler, who said it’s the first time in his six years with the department that the cemetery has shut down for burials. “It’s an issue
 of prioritizing the public works resources.” 

Rather than pull employees from emergency storm
 duty to prepare graves, Derry Public Works
 Director Mike Fowler has declared a moratorium on burials.
Although many of the state’s town-run cemeteries routinely shut down operations in December and don’t schedule burials until spring thaw, Forest Hills is one of several year-round cemeteries. The situation in Derry came to a head last week when Fowler had to pull two of his employees from emergency storm duty to prepare graves for two funerals scheduled by Peabody Funeral Homes. 
“We asked the funeral home if we could postpone the funerals, but they said we couldn’t — it’s typically a situation where family is coming in from land afar and they want to be able to pay their respects and take care of the burial in a timely fashion. Naturally, we want to respond to the needs of grieving families, but what we’re trying to say to the funeral homes is that they need to give our crews a break,” Fowler said. 
Rick Russell, who has been running the Public Works Department in Salem for 15 years, agrees, said his first priority is keeping public roads safe and clear. Although he has yet to suspend burials at the town’s three active cemeteries, if the snow keeps piling up — it’s over the top of the headstones — he may follow Derry’s lead. 
“We had a situation recently where a funeral home called us on a Monday morning telling us they were having a burial the next day, in the middle of a storm. We told them it wasn’t going to happen. They said they’d already told the family it was — well, shame on you, I told them,” Russell said. 
The funeral was postponed. 
Craig Peabody, owner of Peabody Funeral Homes in Derry and Londonderry, said the closure of Forest Hills until further notice is a first in his 25 years in the business. There are provisions at most cemeteries for cold storage until a grave can be prepared. But families intent on a winter burial aren’t always comfortable with having a loved one “stored” until spring thaw, he said. 
“One thing that helps is the number of cremations — far more people are opting for cremation these days, which means the need for winter burials is down,” Peabody said. 
Russell said Salem can sometimes accommodate families in the new area of the cemetery. 
“It’s easy to go in there with a machine,” he said. “But if they want to bury someone in a family plot with other loved ones, it’s going to take us three or four days longer than it would in summer. Funeral homes have to realize that and work with us before they promise a family they can have an immediate burial this time of year.” 
Fowler said that preparing a grave requires much more than simply clearing snow from a patch of ground. Beyond digging through frozen ground with heavy machinery, workers on funeral detail will also spend several hours on task, standing by to lower a vault into the ground and complete the burial. 
Forest Hills will remain closed for burials for at least the next four weeks. Fowler said his department will continue to clear roadways that run through the cemetery as time allows, and the decision to stay closed will be revisited every few weeks.
For now, given the depth of the frost and the amount of snow, Fowler figures burials will not resume until mid-March or early April.
"In the modern world of public works we're constantly struggling with priorities and requests. The cemetery had two full-time dedicated employees until 2006, when we decided to consolidate efforts. We've inherited a lot of things like that -- for example, landscaping at the Taylor Library now falls under public works since they were told to eliminate landscaping services from their budget. Public Works gladly accepted the work, but the bottom line is you have to make best use of your existing forces, and that's just what we're trying to continue do," Fowler said. 

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